Friday, August 8, 2008

Andrew Sonntag's Experience Playing Atreyu in THE NEVERENDING STORY


After reading the novel, I approached this work first as a storyteller. What makes this adventure special is that it is really about every adventure, and the conflict becomes not one of "life and death" as is quoted so often in the script, but really one of being and nonbeing. It is about the future of stories and the nature of reality. So in the weeks before rehearsals began I went back to the mono-myth, studied again "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell, and became determined to find out why the play needed a hero at all, and why the play needed to be created and produced in the first place. It's a book every storyteller, in any aspect, should read. Here's a bit from the beginning that deserves to be quoted at length:

"There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about similarities; and once they are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed. My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite disparate causes of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding"

Atreyu is, as heroes so often are, incredibly naïve and overconfident at the start. Even after failing again and again, it isn't until he loses Artax (who acts as not just a companion or friend, but as Atreyu's superego) that he is forced to come into being. In the book he considers letting himself die, but carries on. It is this decision that truly is his "manhood test," which he waited for his whole life before being called to the Great Quest.

He is called to this adventure to find a cure for the Childlike Empress. In the book she is said to be "the beginning of all things," and if she dies, the boundless universe in which Atreyu exists ('imagination' if you like), will cease to exist. And still, with this burden, Atreyu, as the archetypal hero, deals with his own great quest, as we all do: one of purpose. In the play, this comes to a peak at the Sphinx Gate, whose riddle is manifest in the question, "What is the Great Quest when I look out at all those stars?" This is a test of will and perspective, and boils down to "why do I exist?" He doesn't find an answer, but rather a state of mind, which serves as a solution. Like Sisyphus (as understood by Camus), it isn't that he finds a purpose, but a will. He thumbs his nose at the gods and keeps pushing, in spite of everything telling him that his existence is worthless, and hinting that he may not even exist at all.

So that's a very small bit of background about how I approach things (I also recommend doing your etymology work, but I will pass to try and keep this short).

THE PROCESS: "It is fun to play a hero."

As for the actual acting process, Janet helped me find a way to let all of the above serve me in a real way. I had done so much work figuring out who Atreyu is that I had lost something in translating it to the stage. Janet's best piece of advice was this, "Ultimately, Atreyu is stuck with you. Not the other way around." I stopped worrying about every last detail and let myself grow into the role (or let the role grow into me I guess).

It is fun to play a hero. I didn't get to create fantastic voices and creatures like my fellow actors, but I learned a lot from them. Eventually I found a solution to my own Sphinx Gate within the process. We're coming up on 60 shows—ten just this week, but it doesn't get old (I hear Carl laughing at me somewhere in the back of my head). We do get tired, but we keep it fresh, and even better, the audience keeps it fresh (gasps, screams, laughs, and even one time a young boy declaring "AAFFRIICCAA!" at the top of the show). You never know what to expect.

I want to express thanks to my fellow actors. I learned from them every day, on and off the stage, and I still am. They are all phenomenal people in some very surprising and beautiful ways. The show will close this week, but we won't start saying goodbye until the story is told one final time.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, July 18, 2008


Photos by Scott Schuchman
Eribo arrives on the scene, angry at the overly large visitors

Artax and Atreyu struggling in the swamp

Atreyu receives his mission from the Childlike Empress

Atreyu being followed by Gmork

Labels: , , ,

Developing New Plays for Imagination Stage

New plays are the life blood of live theatre. Our culture and priorities change so quickly nowadays that even versions of classic stories written two decades ago feel out-dated. The female characters are too passive, or the action too violent, or the messages too pat to speak meaningfully to today’s young people and families. That’s why at Imagination Stage we are always working on four or five new plays at a time. Each new commission is different. Sometimes we have an idea and go to a particular playwright with it and other times a playwright comes to us with an idea. That was the case with THE NEVERENDING STORY. Toronto-based playwright David S. Craig obtained the English-speaking theatrical rights to Michael Ende’s novel while working on another project in Germany. Because the Ende estate commands considerable respect internationally, David needed to promise its agent two productions at leading American Theatres for Young Audiences. I called up my counterpart at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Linda Hartzell, and suggested that we share the premiere of the play and open it on both coasts in the same season. The fantasy novel turned out to be a favorite of Linda’s only son. She was not hard to convince!

And, as a seasoned playwright, David was not hard to work with. Once the commission was negotiated, he holed himself up on a beach in some South American country for a month to write the first draft. I then met with David and the Linda in Seattle to talk about how to maximize the dramatic elements of the story. The threat of the evil Gmork and The Nothing needed to be established early in the play and build to a climax. David’s second draft was not as faithful to the book but it was a much improved vehicle for the stage. Then when Seattle opened the first production last holiday season, I met David out there again, we talked at length about the production choices there which were, of necessity, very different from what Imagination Stage was planning. The Seattle Children’s Theatre has 600 seats (as opposed to the 380 we have) and the stage is a traditional proscenium, or picture frame stage (as opposed to the thrust that we have). David and I also talked about some possible adjustments to the script that would work better in Bethesda. David arrived about midway through our June 08 rehearsal process and jumped in immediately to make several cuts since the show was running long, and to make line adjustments that helped our particular production. David was ultimately very pleased with Imagination Stage’s production of his show. At his encouragement the artistic directors of two other TYA theatres have traveled from Milwaukee and Tempe to check out how we have solved some tricky staging problems. It is above all gratifying to know that a play that Imagination Stage helped to give birth to is already scheduled to have at least one more year of life at numerous other theatres across the USA next season.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, July 14, 2008

Julie Garner, actor, on 4 characters and even more puppets

I officially play four characters in the show, but it adds up to NINE if you count all the ones for which I make a contribution (aka, Ygramul, Vooshvazool, the Nothing, etc.). I'd have to say the most challenging and rewarding characters for me throughout this process are Morla and Urgl, even though I am hidden behind the puppet and the mask, respectively. There was an intense amount of experimentation that went into fine-tuning these characters -- their movements and characterization. I'm virtually blind while "operating" these characters, but they always illicit squeals and giggles from the audience, and that is very gratifying.

I think the best reason to act in a show is to try something totally different from yourself and to expand the variety of your craft as a performer. The Neverending Story let me accomplish both. Never before have I had to incorporate so many different skills in the same show. Character variety, puppetry, masks, movement, quick changes and ensemble work are not foreign to me, but layering them on top of one another was an exhilarating challenge. Then to layer the expertise of Janet (director), Leslie (movement) and Eric (puppeteer) on top of my own experience was to create a new perspective for each moment on stage.

The technical ambition of this show was enough to alter any actor's typical "process." For example, when I should have been contemplating "what is the bully's super-objective?" I was thinking, instead, "What are the changes I'll fall down if I try to zip my pants and put both arms through a book bag while going down a spiral staircase?" Once the show opened (and I had successfully flirted with this quick-change disaster), I finally began to relax into the natural rhythms of that particular character.

Making this experience even more memorable is the ensemble of actors, directors, designers, and technical crew at Imagination Stage. There is a sense of trust that makes this magic possible. I trust Janet's artistic vision; I trust that the trap doors will open and close safely; I trust that every actor in the show will play each moment to its fullest potential; and, of course, I trust that every person of every age sitting in the audience will leave our theatre entertained and inspired by The Neverending Story.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Opening a show is sort of like cramming for an exam. It’s a high stress deadline that the company psyches itself for but which ultimately is fairly meaningless. After all, you can get an "A" on a history test but instantly forget most of the dates and details the minute you leave the classroom. It’s your deeper and abiding comprehension of the material that matters and which can help to inform your decisions in the present. Though we tend to think of our VIP opening night audience, newspaper critics and Helen Hayes judges as the examiners in AMERICAN THEATRE who mete out our grades, it’s interesting to note that this is not the only way of working. Last summer when Robert Dion from DynamO Theatre in Montreal was co-directing THE ARABOOLIES OF LIBERTY STREET with me, he was delighted with the possibilities he saw for the show during our public previews. And he was shocked and horrified when I told him that it was too late in our process to make major changes to the set, costumes or action of the piece. With his own company in Quebec, Robert may keep a show in repertory for several years. Over that time, he attends every performance, many different actors cycle through the production, and Robert adjusts the text, the action, and the significant moments as he sees what suits the players. Always, he is striving to make the work deeper. As he understands the play at a more profound level over time from watching and living with it, he has the freedom to make the adjustments that will reveal these discoveries to his audience.

Even as we launch THE NEVERENDING STORY on its 7 week run at Imagination Stage, I know that this talented company is gaining new insights about the story and their characters with every performance they do. It is the response and engagement of the audience that takes them deeper into the hearts of their characters and the magical world of Fantastica. While they have a clear direction, there are still innumerable nuances to be found. I remember when I was an actor discovering something new about a line which I’d said a hundred times in rehearsal and performance but suddenly discovered its true meaning. “How could I have missed that” you ask yourself, “why didn’t I see it before”? Every production possesses an organic life that belongs to the company. Good actors bring new material from their daily lives, the news, a book they just read, a painting or movie they saw to the theatre each day. They challenge themselves to reveal more about their unique knowledge of life through the mouth of their characters in each successive performance. The production grows like a person into its maturity over the run. While I don’t have the option, like Robert, of watching every performance and tweaking the moments over the next seven weeks, I know that I’ll be dropping into the back of the theatre most days to catch my favorite scenes and see how different audiences are responding to the show. What makes live theatre so vital to me in our technological age is that is cannot be canned, graded or dismissed as a finished product until the lights dim on the final performance. Actors and audience are sharing real time, breathing the same air, and connecting in a magical and mightily meaningful way.


Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Michael John Casey (actor) on Tech Week

I'm Michael John Casey and I am playing the role of Falkor among others in The Neverending Story. I have been acting professionally in the DC area for about a decade, and I am very happy to be back at Imagination Stage. This entry is just to touch on the experience of technical rehearsals and provide an inside scoop to the character of Falkor, the luck dragon.

Now truth be told, many actors don't care for technical rehearsals, mainly because they are long days and sometimes amount to a good deal of waiting. But I have to admit that I love technical rehearsals. Having worked my way through college and graduate school in scene shops and occasionally as a theatrical electrician, I got to see both sides. When tech rehearsals come around, I see it as the time when all the different elements and artisans of the theatre come together for the one goal of creating a successful theatrical experience. Getting to really experience the set as the world of the play opens the doors of discovery like very few things do. One gets to see not only how the lights will actually light the play but provide focus and tension to a particular scene. This goes the same for sound. The added level of puppetry with this production makes the experience in my opinion, all the more exciting.

For the role of Falkor, I started with the book and what playwright David Craig has adapted. Falkor has a mischievous quality that makes him charming. He's a bit of a trickster, but has a good moral compass. When Falkor is aware that Atreyu is responsible for the helping in saving his life, Falkor chooses to devote himself to a bond of friendship with Atreyu which becomesan adventure aiding Atreyu on his quest regardless of what dangers that might mean for the both of them. We all have "pals" but it those people who will stand by us in good times and bad that are the ones truly bonded to us as friends. For the physicality of the character, (as the design had gone away from the "flying dog" image of the 1984 movie) I looked to images of dragons and watched a few movies where dragons and their movement was featured prominently. It has been a great deal of fun in the rehearsing and I hope that reads to the audience.

Please come and I hope you enjoy it!

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 23, 2008

Inside peak to the decisions after "Design Run"

The Neverending Story
June 15, 2008

Towards the end of the second week of rehearsal, we reach a point where Designers and other Imagination Stage staff are invited in to see a full run of the show in the rehearsal hall. It is an important milestone for everybody in the production process. A day that the company works towards; a day when the actors try to be completely off-book and that the company works towards, a day when the actors try o be completely off-book and get the blocking and stage business as true to what has been rehearsed. For the first time, we have a small audience. We can feel the flow of the whole play, the journeys of the characters, catch a glimpse of what the show will look like in performance and discover what parts will be the highlights for our audience. It is also an important day for our designers -- lighting, sound, and set -- as well as the builders of costumes, props, and puppets. From the design run, they learn where lights will have to be focused. They spot potential problems: does one actor need a pocket in her costume for a prop? Will the furniture as designed work with the movement performed? They hope is that we can make adjustments before tech week when we move into the theatre and pull all the production elements together into a pretty package.

Here are some changes we made during the process that followed the design run:
  • Artax's (Max Lawrence) horse's behind, as designed, could not work with Atreyu (Andrew Sontag) riding piggy back. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard and I talked. Sadly, the behind had already been built by props designer Dre Moore. It seemed criminal to lose her beautiful work. Suddenly Kathleen recalled that Cairon (Carl Randolph) is a centaur in the book! Thus Artax's behind was moved to Cairon.
  • Initial plans for the set included an elaborate pulley system for Bastian to ride down from his perch in the attic in order to enter Fantastica at the climactic moment of the play. During the "cost-out" for the set, we discovered that this structure was going to put us $1500 over budget. I asked Choreographer Leslie Felbain if she thought the company could "catch" Bastian (Michael Nguyen) if he was brave enough to jump onto the stage from his 8-foot platform. Leslie, who includes circus work in her long list of movement credentials, said "sure." I also took precaution of calling Michael (a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School) and asked him about it. He chimed in "sure," too. Rehearsals have therefore included several sessions of Michael jumping off an 8-foot ladder so he won't be surprised by the height of the platform once we're in the theatre June 18th.
  • Puppeteer Eric Van Wyk has been working on the build of several puppets for the show and training the actors to tuse them. We discovered during design run that Eribo's hot air balloon was not reading quite right, the Sassafranian Father was too short for easy operation by puppeteer/actors MJ Casey and Julie Garner, and that the shields that make up the shell of Morla the Turtle were heavy and reading more like a wall than a turtle's humped back.
  • Eric made some modifications and returned to rehearsal the following Friday to help us make the most of the puppets. It is hard to describe the difference between a puppet that comes to life and one that doesn't. The slightest adjustment can make a tremendous difference. I'll be watching the scene and suddenly this paper mache and wire construction becomes a complete being with thoughts, feelings and designers! True theatre magic.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Neverending Story: The conflicts between good & evil


Pinch-punch-first-of-the-month of June at Imagination Stage means turning a page on our Production Calendar and starting to build the world of this summer’s ambitious extravaganza, THE NEVERENDING STORY. Best known to American audiences from the 1984 movie adaptation, this brilliant fantasy mystery and adventure was written by German author, Michael Ende, in the years following World War II and published in 1953. Like its British counterpart, C. S. Lewis’s better known CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, Ende’s book deals with bold conflicts between good and evil, an imaginary world full of eccentric characters, and the journey of some youngsters against enormous odds to ensure that the positive forces prevail over the bad. That’s where the parallels end, however, because in Ende’s world view, there is no Aslan willing to sacrifice himself for a flawed humanity. Instead, Ende repeatedly shows his leading characters faced with profound difficulties—the death of loved ones, lack of faith in the abilities of the young, adult apathy, self-interest and outright vengefulness. Yet the author draws us through the perils and pain of dark characters and events as a way, in the end, of affirming the light. He affirms each person’s ability, and indeed his responsibility, to choose peace over violence; bravery over cowardice; generosity over meanness; and action over inaction.

This is a fantasy with a great contemporary feel with many great lessons the children of today.

These are the ideas that we began with on Monday in our first rehearsal. A company of 9 actors has been assembled in order to populate both the real world and the world of Fantastica. As you can imagine, there has to be a great of deal of doubling and fast costume changes in order to realize the 37 characters in the script. (And even this represents some fraction of those in the novel.) During the Design Presentation to the company, Set Designer Dan Conway showed a model of the set. This involves a circular playing space with four trap doors, a metal bridge with a spiral staircase and a huge projection screen that is decorated to look like a printed page from the book, THE NEVERENDING STORY. Dan showed the group several images on his Mac laptop that are being photoshop-ed in order to create the lush and varied backdrops for the scenes in Fantastica. Puppeteer and Puppet-maker Eric Van Wyk showed the cast his sketches of puppets that he will build for the show: hand puppets that are The Good Fairy and Eribo; Bun Raku puppets for the Sassafranians (who grow young instead of old) and the Night Hob, VoshVazool, who brings news of The Nothing to the Magnolia Palace, home of the childlike Empress. Eric demonstrated his work-in-progress, Vooshvazool’s bat whose wings are crafted from half of a black umbrella! Costume and props presentations were made by Kathleen Geldard and Dre Moore respectively. Because the cast will be onstage most of the time playing everything from pedestrians on the street to aspects of the landscape in Fantastica, Kathleen has chosen to put most everyone in a base costume that matches the sepia tones of the big page of the book on the set. To this many different pieces will be added or changed throughout the show in order to create all 37 characters.

Labels: , , ,

Get news and specials offers: